Equipped with a camera his parents gave him as a teenager, Frank Norton Jr. went around on weekends taking pictures.
“And I found this building, and I still have the pictures,” said the chairman and CEO of The Norton Agency in Gainesville, looking up at New Holland United Methodist Church, which closed in 2013.
“This was one of my favorite buildings,” he added.
As part of an investor group that later bought the building, Norton carries more than nostalgia for the 115-year-old structure on Spring Street, with its bell tower overlooking the New Holland community off Jesse Jewell Parkway.
He is planning to convert the old church into an apartment building named New Holland Studios, which is an effort that can begin in earnest after getting rezoning approval from the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Jan. 24.
The building will house nine efficiency and one-bedroom apartments.
Norton plans to retain the building’s character, along with its Shaker craftsman architecture. But demolition is well underway inside, with the old sanctuary all but gutted.
“I have found an old photograph of a porch and that will be rebuilt to the same style,” he said.
An outside chair lift that gave handicapped access to the old church entrance will be removed, and the building will get a new roof and fresh exterior coat of paint — retaining the building’s familiar red and green colors.
Otherwise, the building’s “bones are pretty good,” Norton said. “We’re going to use the same hardwood floors.”
The tower will remain as it is — a distinctive feature of the building.
“I can’t use that space,” Norton said.
The bell, which was made in 1898, will be removed and put on a platform on the property.
“I can just see the danger of that some day falling,” Norton said.
There are some mysteries on the property, with some fixtures in the ground that can’t be readily explained.
“When you look at old buildings, you try to look at urban archaeology,” Norton said.
“At some point, there was a post there,” he said, pointing to one area.
In what could be a $1 million effort overall, Norton also plans to dot the surrounding 1.3 acres, which stretches between Myrtle and Highland streets, with up to six tin-roof, clapboard bungalows.
The rental bungalows will be 512 square feet with each featuring one bedroom and a screened-in porch.
“The original thought was could I put a live-and-work art colony here,” Norton said. “That didn’t work financially.”
Apartment rents will vary from $650 to $1,300 per month, and the bungalows, $700.
“I’m trying to keep it affordable,” Norton said.
He said he hopes to start leasing in mid-summer.
Norton also is planning a fire ring on the property, as well as an outdoor shelter favoring a “camp meeting” building common at old church retreats. He also plans to redo shuffleboard courts long ago faded but still intact on the property.
The New Holland community dates to 1900 when the Pacolet Manufacturing Co. came to the area with what would be the largest textile mill in the state.
Pacolet bought 850 acres on which to eventually build the five-story plant, along with 200 homes, a recreation building, store, school, church, athletic fields and offices.
When completed, New Holland was a self-contained model mill village with a payroll of some 1,400 workers. The village’s population would soar to at least 3,000, mill officials estimated.
“Most of these are rentals,” Norton said of nearby houses, also reminders of the mill village. “There are some really nice ones here, and I’ll be competitive with them. And I hope the ones that aren’t so nice will be improved.”
Longtime Gainesville architect Garland Reynolds called the church “one of the most beautiful buildings in Hall County.”
“I’m glad it’s being saved, one way or another,” he said.
The New Holland United Methodist Church, built in 1904, at one time doubled as a Baptist and Methodist church. The remains of a baptistery, or pool where baptisms are held, are in the church.
The church held its last service on Nov. 17, 2013.
Its pastor, the Rev. Paul Youngblood, said at the time the Gainesville congregation had dwindled to the point it couldn’t afford the costs of operation. Before its closing, there had been only five active members.
“Churches are basically living entities,” he said. “Sometime they thrive, and sometime they close.”